The alchemy of assessment, feedback and learning

In a recent paper Watling and Ginsburg discuss the relationship between feedback, assessment and learning.1 This is a must-read paper for anyone interested in assessment. They use the word alchemy in their title. And that is exactly the right word.

How assessment, feedback and the promotion of good learning is promoted, is a complex issue that we only partially understand. Some feel that we should strictly separate formative and summative assessment, or even replace the term formative assessment by learning. In the language of programmatic assessment, the terms formative and summative assessment is replaced by a continuum of stakes, ranging from low stakes to high stakes. There is no such thing of “no stakes” in programmatic assessment. This part of the programmatic assessment model is the hardest part to realize, basically because we only partially understand the alchemy on how to do that. The reason to combine the formative and summative in programmatic assessment is that separating them leads to two problems.

First, it requires the formative assessment to be aligned with the formative. This is often a challenge. Second, in my experience pure formative assessments are not taken seriously by learners and teachers in the long run. Therefore, I rather speak of a continuum of stakes. But how to then get the alchemy right is definitely a challenge. In my view feedback and the promotion of learning can only be done if a true learning culture is achieved. In such a learning culture, the focus is on helping the student to grow. Punitive assessment language (pass, fail, grades, marks) is avoided. In such a culture, teachers and learners have trusted relationships. In moving to such a culture when implementing programmatic assessment, I always remind myself of the many problem-based learning (PBL) implementations that I have seen. The pure models of PBL work best, while hybrid PBL-implementations produce hybrid results. I have seen PBL implementations that stopped after a while because “it did not work”. I think the same is true for programmatic assessment. The purer implementations will achieve such a desired learning culture, but hybrids will run into difficulty with getting the alchemy right. This is what I think, but naturally we need to engage in much more research to shed light on the right kind of alchemy. But alchemy is a well-chosen word.

1Watling, C. J., & Ginsburg, S. (2019). Assessment, feedback and the alchemy of learning. Medical Education, 53(1), 76-85.